Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans private personal meetings with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Tokyo next week, three sources said, seeking to keep him onside with U.S.-led efforts to contain Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions.
With Duterte winding up a trip to China where he announced his “separation” from the United States, Abe faces a delicate task to promote the closely aligned security goals of Tokyo and Washington without pushing the Philippine leader deeper into Beijing’s embrace.
“Japan wants to explain its regional stance, including its thinking regarding the South China Sea,” said one of the sources. “Abe wants to make a connection with Duterte,” he added, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Duterte’s apparent cosying up to Beijing has both Tokyo and Washington worried that the commitment under former Philippine President Benigno Aquino to stand up to China in the hotly disputed waterway is under threat.
Aquino angered China by lodging a case with an arbitration court in the Hague challenging the legitimacy of Beijing’s maritime claims in the resource-rich sea.
The ruling earlier this year emphatically favored Manila but was rejected by China, which has repeatedly warned the United States and Japan to stay out of the dispute.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Japan was “sparing no effort” to get involved in the South China Sea issue, saying Japan was behind the times in the rapidly improving China-Philippines relationship.
Abe will hold one-on-one talks with Duterte at his residence in Tokyo on Wednesday night following a larger, more formal meeting with senior officials, the sources said.
“It’s unusual for the Japanese prime minister to hold a second smaller meeting,” another of the sources said.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will also host Duterte for an informal dinner on Tuesday.